Beginner’s Mind, Pen and Paper
Sometimes, instead of writing in a notebook, you might want to directly type out your thoughts. Writing is physical and is affected by the equipment you use. In typing, your fingers hit keys and the result is block, black letters: a different aspect of yourself may come out. I have found that when I am writing something emotional, I must write it the first time directly with hand on paper. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart.
Another thing you can try is speaking into a tape recorder and feeling how it is to directly record your voice speaking your thoughts. Or you might use it for convenience’ sake: you might be working on the hem of a dress and you begin to think how it was with your ex-husband and you want to write about it. Your hands are busy sewing; you can talk about it into a recorder.
At the beginning you may want to start small and after a week increase your time, or you may want to dive in for an hour the first time. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that whatever amount of time you choose for that session, you must commit yourself to it and for that full period:
Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.)
Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)
Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)
Writing as a Practice
Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance. You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it. When you come to the end, you never want to stop. And you stop, hungry for the next time.
Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies.
The author calls this “composting.” Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.
A List of Topics for Writing Practice
If you give your mind too much time to contemplate a beginning when you sit down to write, your monkey mind might meander over many topics and never quite get to putting a word on the page. So the list also helps to activate your writing quickly and cut through resistance. Naturally, once you begin writing you might be surprised where your mind takes the topic. That’s good. You are not trying to control your writing. You are stepping out of the way. Keep your hand moving.
those characters in you want to fight, let them fight. Meanwhile, the sane part of you should quietly get up, go over to your notebook, and begin to write from a deeper, more peaceful place. Unfortunately, those two fighters often come with you to your notebook since they are inside your head. We can’t always leave them in the backyard or basement or at the day-care center. So you might have to give them five or ten minutes of voice in your notebook. Let them carry on in writing. It is amazing that when you give those voices writing space, their complaining quickly gets boring and you get sick of them.
It’s just resistance.
Trouble with the Editor
The more clearly you know the editor, the better you can ignore it. After a while, like the jabbering of an old drunk fool, it becomes just prattle in the background. Don’t reinforce its power by listening to its empty words. If the voice says, “You are boring,” and you listen to it and stop your hand from writing, that reinforces and gives credence to your editor. That voice knows that the term boring will stop you dead in your tracks, so you’ll hear yourself saying that a lot about your writing. Hear “You are boring” as distant white laundry flapping in the breeze. Eventually it will dry up and someone miles away will fold it and take it in. Meanwhile you will continue to write.
Make Statements and Answer Questions
The world isn’t always black and white. A person may not be sure if she can go some place, but it is important, especially for a beginning writer, to make clear, assertive statements. “This is good.” “It was a blue horse.” Not “Well, I know it sounds funny, but I think perhaps it was a blue horse.” Making statements is practice in trusting your own mind, in learning to stand up with your thoughts.
Another thing you should watch out for are questions. If you can write a question, you can answer it. When you are writing, if you write a question, that is fine. But immediately go to a deeper level inside yourself and answer it in the next line. “What should I do with my life?” I should eat three brownies, remember the sky, and become the best writer in the world. “Why did I feel weird last night?” Because I ate pigeon for dinner and I wore my shoes on the wrong feet and because I am unhappy. “Where does the wind come from?” It comes from the memory of pioneers on the Croix River. It loves the earth as far as the Dakotas.
Don’t be afraid to answer the questions. You will find endless resources inside yourself. Writing is the act of burning through the fog in your mind. Don’t carry the fog out on paper. Even if you are not sure of something, express it as though you know yourself. With this practice you eventually will.
Rereading and Rewriting
It is a good idea to wait awhile before you reread your writing. Time allows for distance and objectivity about your work. After you have filled a whole notebook in writing practice (perhaps it took you a month), sit down and reread the entire notebook as though it weren’t yours. Become curious: “What did this person have to say?” Make yourself comfortable and settle down as though it were a good novel you were about to read. Read it page by page. Even if it seemed dull when you wrote it, now you will recognize its texture and rhythm.
Another good value to rereading whole notebooks is that you can see how your mind works. Note where you could have pushed further and out of laziness or avoidance didn’t. See where you are truly boring, how when you just complain in your writing it only leads you deeper into a pit. “I hate my life. I feel ugly. I wish I had more money. . . .” After you read your complaints long enough, you will learn to quickly turn to another subject when you are writing rather than linger too long in that complaint abyss.
Often you might read page after page in your notebooks and only come upon one, two, or three good lines. Don’t be discouraged. Remember the football teams that practice many hours for a few games. Underline those good lines. Add them to your list of writing topics, and when you sit down to practice you can grab one of those lines and keep going. Underlining them also keeps you alert to them, and often you unconsciously use them. All these disparate parts suddenly come together, and you will be amazed.